A Champagne (yet right-on) Socialist, and some blokes who sew

According to a 1908 biography of William Morris I picked up on my trip to Brighton, Morris (much like me) was "a born romantic". However, his romanticism was applied to "the hard facts of life"; he channelled his "sense of wonder" and "passion for beauty into the making of beautiful things which were eventually to become the starting-points for the wonderland of a new civilisation: in a phrase - the discovery of the romance of work." In short, Morris yearned for a socialist utopia in which great pleasure and pride was found in every type of work, and (in particular) in the decorative arts. 

This love of work is evident in, I think I can safely say, all the minor masterpieces of arts and crafts design that Morris and Co. produced.

William Morris
Morris wasn't merely a romantic artist and designer, however; as an article in the Socialist Review put it, he was "a socialist by design". He wrote pamphlets, gave speeches, edited two socialist newspapers, and was one of the first to join the Social Democratic Federation, in 1883.

In keeping with his socialist principals, "William Morris even envisaged a time when the sexual division within the domestic arts would vanish for ever. He anticipated the day when 'the domestic arts; the arrangement of the house in all its details, marketing, cleaning, cooking, baking and so on' would be in the hands of everyone"

In many respects, his dream has become a reality; no longer do domestic duties appear to be divided (quite so) strictly along gender lines. However, my dad may do the bulk of the ironing, but the cooking is still Mum's "job"; Dad lacks the confidence to try cooking anything more adventurous than his famous "baked bean shepherd's pie" (it's a culinary... experience).

As far as craft is concerned, more men do seem to be turning to the needle, although gender lines are more rigid here; Mum may do the majority of the DIY, but, at least in my household, it's the women who darn the proverbial socks.

"Manbroiderers" of the Jamie "Mr X Stitch" Chalmers ilk are trying to change this. I suspect the upsurge in male embroiderers is due to a few factors; the "invention" of the "new man"; the current vogue for all that is analogue and twee; and a similar vogue for the ironic and post-modern.

Throngs of men embroidering at craft nights, however, is something that, unfortunately, I've yet to see. It would be encouraging to have some brothers-in-arms!

Elusive male crafters at an East London Craft Guerrilla night

After all, there's certainly nothing effeminate about Chalmer's work; one of his most recent undertakings was a series of cross stitchings of the spam filtered out of his inbox, including the ubiquitous invitations to "sharpen your love sword"!

Richard Saja and "Johnny Murder", founder of the Manbroidery blog here on Blogger, are fellow male embroiderers. 

Richard Saja,  "... and a half-extinguished fire is soon relit", 2011
"Johnny Murder" doing his thing... bare chested... with a cigarette (very much putting the "man" in "manbroidery")

A section of male society who have taken to embroidery in force, perhaps surprisingly, is prisoners. Fine Cell Work is a charity which aims to "foster hope, discipline and self-esteem" through teaching British inmates to hand embroider. Their embroidery is then turned into cushions, bags, and patchwork kilts. The prisoners are paid for their work, and trained to a high skill level by volunteers from the Embroiderers and Quilters Guild, as the photographs below show:
Love Cushion, a Daisy de Villeneuve design embroidered by British prisoners
Beetroot design, embroidered by British prisoners

The enterprise is clearly vastly rewarding for the prisoners; Steve, an inmate at Wandsworth prison, is quoted as saying that he is "learning a new skill" which he "did not think possible. I also know that people do care about me and what I do because otherwise why would people take an interest in my fine cell work! I now believe what others think about me makes a real difference to how I conduct myself.”

However, it would be wonderful to see some more embroidery by un-incarcerated men! Come on guys! Get stitching.

The World Wide (Stitched) Web

I was in a pub a few weeks ago with a friend who was surprised to hear quite how violently the online embroidery community was flourishing! In fact, the internet is both building and revolutionising the embroidery (and wider craft) community.

The blog Mr X Stitch champions contemporary embroidery; the site's founder, Jamie Chalmers, recently published PUSH: Stitchery, a book which presents the cutting-edge needlework of thirty embroidery artists, most of whom had previously been featured on his blog.
Not only does Mr X Stitch introduce us to the length and breadth of contemporary needlework, but its Flickr group, the Phat Quarter, gives any embroiderer with a camera/scanner and internet access the chance to share their work with a community of like-minded people. In addition to this, the Phat Quarter is forging more personal links between embroiderers through its themed swaps, the most recent of which was based around the theme of food.

Death Paste by crafty and devious, for Riann's Pictures; a new take on Vegemite for the Phat Quarter food swap
The online handmade marketplace Etsy is allowing craftspeople to turn their passion into an (often thriving) business. One such needle artist is the very funny Stephanie Tillman; her What Party? embroideries feature wild animals in a variety of human predicaments. Tillman makes any one of the vast variety of her designs to order through Etsy.

Disturbed Fox Just Watched Antichrist, a What Party? embroidery by Stephanie Tillman, available to order on Etsy (and particularly relevant as I went to see the new Lars Von Trier, Melancholia, last night.)
The Embroidered Digital Commons Open Source Embroidery Project goes one step further in dispersing embroidery, virtually, through the internet; it is a series of embroideries about the internet, on the internet. The project "is based on the beautifully crafted language of the Concise Lexicon of/for the Digital Commons (Sarai, 2003) written by the Raqs Media Collective. The full lexicon is an A-Z of the interrelationship between social, digital and material space".

The Mr X Stitch community stitched the term Fractal:
Sewn by Alison Bancroft

Sewn by Renee King

The project is a perfect example of the collaborations the internet can facilitate. It was actually a post here on Blogger which led to one of my own collaborations; Emma Parker, aka Stitch Therapy, blogged about taking her hand-sewn hearts to the Pharmacy of Stories gallery. Intrigued, I went along to the private view of the exhibition Emma had sewn the hearts for, and there I met Tina, owner of the gallery. The exhibition, Here Is My Heart , fitted so perfectly with The Cure for Love it was unreal. We decided to collaborate, leading to an embroidered love potion-making workshop (and hopefully future collaborations!)

Emma has recently been involved in a swap of her own, with another stitching blogger, Annika, of All The Live Long Day. The pair have sent each other motivational, hand-stitched postcards:

Emma's postcard to Annika

Annika's postcard to Emma
In addition to leading to collaborations, the internet has also allowed me to contact textile artists whose work I particularly admire; both Iviva Olenick and Joetta Maue were kind enough to write insightful answers to the interview questions I sent them via email. I also conducted an email interview with Debbie of the East London Craft Guerilla on the relationship between Walthamstow and arts and crafts.

I hope that the internet will long continue to foster links and collaboration between needlework artists. Now, back to admiring the magnificent narwhals in Frozen Planet; I may or may not be stitching one up for my next piece!

Subversive Stitchery

Contemporary needlework comes in many guises; from the twee to the political via the subversive and disturbing. Mr X Stitch, "the number one contemporary embroidery and needlecraft blog" showcases the breadth of these (including my own embroidery). Mr X Stitch himself, the blog's founder, is Jamie Chalmers, a self-styled "manbroiderer" who gets a mention in Rozsika Parker's book The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine.

Recently, subversive craft has really come into its own; taking the form of everything from sewn swear words to "craftivist" protest banners to knitted and crocheted graffiti.

Crystal Gregory's Invasive Crochet
Ami Grinsted, a recent graduate from Falmouth's Contemporary Crafts course, created an embroidered series on the Egyptian Revolution. Ami cross stitches on wilfully difficult surfaces; wood (which she drills holes into to sew through) and wire mesh. As a review of her work on Mr X Stitch says, "Ami chooses to increase the tension (of her sewn subject) by stitching through hard surfaces".

Embroidering a protest placard seems to my mind to be a reference to the old embroidered trade union and suffrage banners. Suffrage banners are a perfect early example of the "woman's work" of embroidery being employed for a subversive cause.

In the 1970s needlework was reclaimed by the Feminist Movement, for example by the fine artist Kate Walker. In The Subversive Stitch, Walker is quoted as saying that she has "never worried that embroidery's association with femininity, sweetness, passivity and obedience may subvert my work's feminist intention. Femininity and sweetness are part of women's strength. Passitivity and obedience, moreover, are the very opposite of the qualities necessary to make a sustained effort in needlework. What's required are physical and mental skills, fine aesthetic judgement in colour, texture and composition; patience during long training; and assertive individuality of design (and consequent disobedience of aesthetic convention). Quiet strength need not be mistaken for useless vulnerability."

My work (though possibly in a slightly more subtle way!) follows in the traditions of Julie Jackson's Subversive Cross Stitch.

A Subversive Cross Stitch pattern

My Don't be an art school arsehole embroidery

Though I choose to embroider on old linens, the sentiments I stitch upon them are new; this results in a fusion of past and present, acknowledging embroidery's lineage whilst keeping it contemporary. Like many other contemporary embroiderers, I take what could be a twee and cloying pattern and add a healthy dose of irony, with tongue in cheek punning and verse. In other pieces I embroider a line from one of my poems on love in the modern urban environment. I embroider on linens passed down to me by my grandmother, in turn handed down to her by my great grandmother. In this way I acknowledge embroidery's past as "woman's work" whilst simultaneously subverting it.

My work may not be overtly feminist (aside from the fact that it subverts what is traditionally thought of as "women's work"), but it is often subversive, sending up artist clichés in a humorous and self-deprecating manner.

One of my embroideries exploring and poking fun at the "tortured artist/writer" cliché
In The Subversive Stitch, Rozsika Parker explains how at one time embroidery was thought of as "almost a secondary female sexual characteristic". Today, "manbroiderers" like Jamie Chalmers and Richard Saja challenge that assertion.

Richard Saja's work
My embroidery is informed by that of my peers, particularly those, such as Iviva Olenick and Joetta Maue, who explore themes of love. I am incredibly grateful to the always supportive online embroidery community on mrxstitch.com, Flickr, and here on Blogger. They continue to inspire and encourage me.